The recent MYEFO Budget Update released on October 22 2013 has added further restrictions to the telehealth consultations announced by the prime minister in the lead up to the last election, and eventually made available on July 1 2011. From January 1 2013 new geographic restrictions have been added to those introduced in the May budget basically making telehealth consultations available only to those who live in remote areas. Those in outer metropolitan areas and major cities of Australia as defined by the Australian Standard Geographical Classification Remoteness Areas (ASGC-RA) will miss out.
In my opinion this is the beginning of the end of telehealth consultations in Australia. By marginalising them to only a delivery method suitable for remote populations, essentially a technology enabled version of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, they are significantly blunting the value proposition for telehealth consultations. Actually they are restricting it more than the RFDS, as it can deliver services to places not limited to those classified as remote, but to those areas that need its help. Essentially these changes have taken away from clinicians the right to make that type of decision. Rather than expand on what seems to have been a successful program, it has chosen to “strangle it on the vine” to prevent its growth.
Telehealth consultations have the possibility of radically improving the efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare delivery for all Australians by allowing clinicians to provide a more cost effective, and better targeted service to those who need it. It is not just about extending specialist care to those in remote areas. Whilst that is part of it, the problem is that by marginalising it to such a small part of the population they effectively strangle its growth. As a result less clinicians will try it and make it part of their normal repertoire. It will not become a tool that many clinicians will use, and those that do will be stifled by the extra paper work associated with delivering it, and the fear of an audit which shows that a patient lived 1 km outside the boundaries of remote Australia, and therefore was not eligible.
The bright hope of the telehealth announcements and subsequent actions by the government was that technology would be seen as an enabler of health reform. The concept of delivering care is the most efficient and effective way that is suitable for an individual patient seemed to be becoming a reality. Telehealth had the possibility of not just delivering care to remote Australia, but to many areas of need, with short supply of healthcare providers of many different types. More exciting was the prospect that clinicians could develop new and innovative models of care for people with chronic disease, which now includes diseases like cancer and auto immune diseases as well as the well known ones of diabetes, heart and lung disorders and others. These are the major burden on the Australian health system, and the inefficiency in their management has led to them becoming a major cost burden on the healthcare system. By innovating in new models of care that could leverage technology such as video conferencing to make that care not just cheaper, but as evidenced in many trials also better, there was an opportunity for Australia to become a world leader.
However, in an attempt to save $130 million over 4 years the government has lost an opportunity to potentially save billions from the annual healthcare expenditure, which is at $130 billion now, and predicted to continue rising. I remain slightly confused how that money will be saved. The individual still has the right to receive the same level of care, they just have to work out how to get to the specialist’a rooms in the city. The hidden costs associated with that still need to be paid for.
At a time when we are investing, in my belief wisely, some $40 billion to deliver a National Broadband Network, we have essentially cut off one of its best business cases, telehealth consultations, to save a relatively small amount. To a rational investor this would seem bizarre. To a nation that prides itself on being a world leader in healthcare and innovation it is essentially the kiss of death to an opportunity which had not only great local value, but also potentially an opportunity for Australia to become the telehealth hub of the Asia-Pacific region, and possible even beyond.